Wisconsin, Utah governors sign bills penalizing violence, threats against healthcare workers

Two state governors signed bills this week that increase penalties of battery or assault against healthcare workers and make violent threats against healthcare workers a felony.

Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed into law Assembly Bill 960, which was introduced by state lawmakers in early February.

Battery against a nurse, emergency medical care provider or person working in an emergency department was already a Class H felony in the state, punishable by up to six years in state prison and/or a maximum fine of $10,000.   

However, the new bipartisan legislation expanded the same punishment to battery or threats “in response to an action taken by the healthcare provider in his or her official capacity, or in response to something that happened at the health care facility,” according to the bill.

It also extended the protections to any person who is a healthcare provider, a staff member of a healthcare facility or a family member of a healthcare provider or staff.

“Threats against healthcare workers cause hospital staff to choose between caring for patients in the hospital or leaving the hospital altogether,” Wisconsin Hospital Association President and CEO Eric Borgerding said in a statement. “With significant workforce challenges in Wisconsin hospitals, we cannot afford to lose providers because they fear threats in the workplace. Today’s new law will send a strong message to the public that threats against healthcare workers are taken seriously and not tolerated in Wisconsin.”

Alongside the healthcare worker protections, Evers also signed legislation (Assembly Bill 679) permanently enabling Wisconsin hospitals to deliver in-patient level care in the home.

A day prior, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed off on House Bill 32, which was introduced by Republican lawmakers earlier this year.

Similar to the Wisconsin bill, Utah’s legislation updated protections regarding emergency room workers to include “assault or threat of violence against a healthcare provider, emergency medical service worker, or healthcare facility employee, owner or contractor.”  

Violating the law incurs a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. The penalty is increased to a third-degree felony if the attacker “causes substantial bodily injury” and “acts intentionally or knowingly,” according to the bill.

Healthcare groups and staff have spoken out of increasing violence against healthcare workers over the past few years which, coupled with other pandemic safety concerns and stressors, are leading many workers to leave the industry.

While legislators across several states have introduced bills that would create new penalties against those who assault a healthcare worker, there currently are no federal laws penalizing violence against healthcare workers specifically.

Thursday, American Hospital Association (AHA) President and CEO Richard Pollack wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for his support on such legislation. Citing studies indicating 44% of nurses experienced physical violence and 68% verbal abuse during the pandemic, AHA's head asked Garland to support legislation modeled after protections passed last year for flight crews and aircraft workers. 

"Our nation’s health care workers deserve the same protections and the same commitment from the Department of Justice," Pollack wrote in the letter. "Unfortunately, there is no existing federal statute that protects health care workers from the even greater incidence of violence that they experience."

One bill, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, was passed in the House of Representatives nearly one year ago but has so far stalled in the Senate. Rather than penalize those who commit or threaten violence against healthcare workers, it would put the onus on healthcare employers to meet workplace violence prevention plans enforceable by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.